Review by Judd Hollander
Photos by Richard Termine
John Malkovich cuts an unsettling and engaging figure as Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger in The Infernal Comedy: confessions of a serial killer which was preformed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from
November 17th-19th, 2011 as part of the BAM Next Wave Festival.
In a concert hall, much like one where the show is talking place, Unterweger explains that this gathering is both part of his book tour, said book displayed prominently on stage, as well as a chance for him to finally set the record straight regarding what he did or didn't do, and more importantly, exactly why he did or didn't do it.
Unterweger, it should be noted, was convicted of murder in 1974, sentenced to 15 years in jail (and ten more on probation). He subsequently became a jailhouse writer, published an autobiography and gained quite a literary and intellectual following; turning into something of a celebrity upon his release. However his loudly-proclaimed successful rehabilitation left more than a little to be desired -- he murdered six prostitutes within a year after getting out; that total later increasing to 11. Eventually he was caught, convicted and ended up killing himself in his jail cell in 1994.
Despite all the facts stacked against him, Unterweger addresses his listeners with an eager and charismatic energy, seemingly oblivious to how he is perceived. Though he does take more than one verbal swipe at his publisher for some of the things he's had to do since on this tour. Unterweger then quickly gets down to business, talking about his childhood, his relationship with his mother and with some of the women he supposedly killed. (All of the women in the story are played by operatic sopranos Marie Arnet, Kirsten Blaise, Louise Fribo and/or Martene Grimson, who perform various arias during the play, often while Unterweger is murdering them. Not all women appear at each performance.) Yet as eventually becomes obvious, there is no denying the undercurrent of rage Unterweger possesses, sort of a continual inner anger just waiting to be triggered.
While Malkovich certainly presents a compelling portrayal, by the end of the work one is no closer to really understanding Unterweger than when they first walked in. On one level this seems to be playwright and director Michael Sturminger's intent, but on another can be somewhat annoying. There's also the fact, seamlessly dropped into the story early on and expanded on about two-thirds of the way in; that this "book tour" is taking place after Unterweger's death. Although one would assume at such a point in a being's existence they would have no reason to lie; in fact, every word Unterweger utters is suspect, so the audience needs to continually sift through what he says in order to try to find out what he really means.
Besides the underlying conceit of the Unterweger character, there are several other perhaps accusatory themes touched on during the piece, such as the power celebrities can bring to bear, power not always exercised with the best responsibility. Not to mention the failure of the prison system to recognize Unterweger had not exactly turned over a new leaf, as it were. Points Malkovich himself touches on and embraces during his performance. The production also mixes in a lot of humor into the work, usually through Malkovich's interaction with the onstage Weiner Akademie Orchestra that provides continual underlying music throughout the show. Selections include pieces from Mozart, Beethoven, Hayden and Vivaldi. (It also helps that the show's music director/conductor is Martin Haselböck, who also came up with the musical concept for the presentation.)
The only real distraction from the proceedings is the accent Malkovich uses, a thick Austrian one modeled, Unterweger explains, after Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unfortunately it's also an accent Malkovich is unable to keep up throughout, which takes a bit away from the characterization.
That one major problem aside, Malkovich does a good job with the Unterweger character, drawing the audience into the story, but ultimately keeping them at arm's length in regards to who Unterweger really is. Malkovich's performance reminds one of a fellow who likes to talk just to hear his own voice while his listeners would probably rather be anywhere else. Unterweger's final moments, where he shows the audience exactly what his book contains, reveal a man still trying to hold on to a sense of ambiguity while leaving open the possibility of doubt. (Of course since the play is billed as a confession of a serial killer, this may be a somewhat moot point.)
The various ladies do a wonderful job as the women who figure in Unterweger's life, interacting with Malkovich quite seamlessly and expiring quite powerfully at points. The women's costumes by Birgit Hutter are quite striking; while Malkovich's outfit makes his character look like a gregarious huckster, with the feeling of something seedy hidden beneath his loud attire and attitude. Sturminger's direction nicely ties all the various elements together, keeping the story moving forward and also making sure the piece never overstays its welcome.
The Infernal Comedy makes for an interesting theatre experiment, Sturminger and Malkovich trying to examine and explain the life of a man whose actions were beyond human understanding on some level. Yet ultimately, the play never shows the man behind the public perception and thus leaves the story feeling somewhat incomplete. Still, it's a fascinating piece overall.
The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a serial killer
Featuring: John Malkovich (actor), Marie Arnet (soprano), Kirsten Blaise (soprano), Louise Fribo (soprano), Martene Grimson (soprano)
Written and directed by Michael Sturminger
Music Direction and Concept by Martin Haselböck
Orchester: Wiener Akademie
Costume Design: Birgit Hutter
A Musikkonzept Production
Howard Gilman Opera House
Running Time: 1 Hour 45 Minutes
Running Time: 1 Hour 45 Minutes